Week before last I wrote about In-box Management and while many of you liked my highly figurative example of dealing with the spam between your ears, most of you would like tips to deal with the actual deluge of email you have to face on a daily basis.
I am glad to oblige. Let’s get started.
The problem with email is twofold. First, there’s too much of it in your in-box (we’ll call that “inflow”) and, second, you have to decide what to do with it (“outflow”).
In medicine, “triage” is used to identify and manage the most acute cases, those in need of immediate attention. Guess what? Triage can also be used to manage your email effectively. All you have to do is identify what’s most important, and deal with that first. Sounds simple enough, right?
Here are three tips to triage Inflow:
1) Have three different email accounts. One is your primary business email account. This is the account on your business card, and the one you give to professionals with whom you network. Your second account is for personal use — this is the one you give your mother, your aunt Suzy, your layout cousin Frank and others. The third account is the one you use for online ordering, online games, online quizzes, whatever. This third account is your spam magnet, and will draw most of the junk. Then, you can spend quality time on your business email, some time on the family email and little or no time on the junk email.
2) Use email folders. Many email programs will allow you to change your settings so that email from a specific sender, or containing specific keywords, can be automatically directed into a folder. For instance, if you are working on a project with Tom Smith, you can specify that all messages containing his email address go into a Tom Smith folder. That makes staying on top of the project a breeze! Likewise, you can make all email containing Words You Would Have Gotten Smacked For Using In Front Of Your Mother go right into the trash. Setting up a priority system with your email folders can help you spend time on what’s acutely important, and save the marginally important for another time.
3) Don’t read your email all day long. It’s a trap to have your email browser open all the time. If you are old enough, you remember when fax machines first hit the office. In my office, every time the fax machine signaled it had an incoming message the entire team gathered around to watch it come through. Who would it be for? What would it say? How important I would be if the fax was for ME! Over time, the novelty of faxes wore off (thank goodness), and we settled down to work. Today, the omnipresence of incoming messages means there is little time to actually think, or create, or evaluate. I suggest you check your email first thing in the morning, mid-day, at the end of the day. I know, I know — you work in a culture that prizes always being available. Well, that’s an awful lot like standing around watching a fax come in. Think of it this way: setting boundaries around reading your email gives you time to actually work!
Now, to Outflow. In my Stress Management class, I give a series of questions to ask when feeling stressed about a task. The very same questions can be applied to your email: Can I eliminate this? Can I do it another time? Can someone else do it?
Back in the dark ages (even before the fax machine, if you can believe it) there was an organizational school of thought best summed up by the phrase: “Touch it once.” The idea being that a letter came in through the in-box on your desk (how quaint) and the goal was to touch it once — read it and decide whether it needed to be filed, thrown out or acted upon. If it needed to be acted upon, you decided that before you put the paper down — you wrote someone else’s name on it and put it in the out-box, you called someone on the telephone to deal with it, or you wrote a new memo suggesting a meeting to settle the matter. Whatever you did, you didn’t let paper hang around your in-box.
That’s a good rule of thumb with virtual paper, too. Don’t use your email in-box as a filing cabinet. Read the message; decide to do something with it or delete it; delegate it to someone else; call a meeting; print it out and post it anonymously on the employee bulletin board. Whatever you do, just touch it once, do something, and let it go.
The immediacy of email creates a false sense of importance. Only you can triage your email — only you can decide what’s important and needs immediate attention, and what’s less critical and can wait. Many things clamor for your attention during the day — honey, if you don’t decide what matters, the clamor decides for you.
And the clamor doesn’t always know what’s best for you.